Michael Kimmelman seems to have entered his new post as the architectural critic at The New York Times with the same wonderment-flecked eyes you can spot on first-year students climbing Rudolph Hall’s steps each fall. As a musician, trained art historian, and cultural journalist embarking on an architectural education, his position is not so far removed from the mixed bag of students he addressed at the Yale School of Architecture recently. (He was speaking to the first professional degree students from backgrounds as diverse as biochemistry and anthropology.) Like the students whose very diversity is that which makes them valuable contributors to collegiate conversation, Kimmelman will have to hold on to his unique position even as he navigates a new field. And like the critic confesses, perhaps students should “hope to ask some stupid questions.”
Sometimes, you need to hear what you already know. A nightcap on the Open House events last Thursday, which was the next to final lecture of the spring semester, a conversation between Paul Goldberger and Frank Gehry didn’t bring to the forefront any new insights on illustrious Gehry’s career or the trajectory of the profession. Yet the themes that arose in their casual chatter–insecurity, intuition, marginalization, and the need for humanity in architecture–provided a refreshing perspective in midst of the mayhem as final reviews are descending on us at the Yale School of Architecture.
This past Monday the anti-establishment infiltrated Yale School of Architecture in a dashing gold scarf. Seducing the audience with a breathless stream of “Frenglish,” whose charm derived from the speaker’s sheer enthusiasm for his subject, François Roche rose to a god-like status typically only afforded movie stars. And if there were a god in whose likeness he is modeled, it would have to be Janus, the forward-backward-looking deity of beginnings and transitions. As Roche drifts nebulously in and around the purview of art and architecture, human and mechanical, historic and futurist, he raises questions of authorship and agency that strike a nerve for a profession coming to terms with its post-recession identity.
If the benches in Hastings Hall were sparsely populated last Thursday, it’s because the word “sustainability” has gone gently into that good night at Yale School of Architecture. The arduous task of its resuscitation that evening fell to Adrian Benepe. The New York City Parks and Recreation Department commissioner brought insight rarely heard in the hallowed halls of architectural education, as he acknowledged the social and economic roles of good park design and the struggles of designing in the public realm.
The blurry definition of “sustainability” tends to obfuscate its application in contemporary practice. Benepe chose a holistic approach, offering up the 1987 Brundtland Report’s definition of sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This view opens up possibilities for urban park design beyond the technical interventions mastered by LEED advocates. The commissioner argued for design that fundamentally betters the lives of city dwellers. Citing the way Central Park’s romantic landscape continues, even 155 years after its opening, to serve as a means for New Yorkers to escape the crowded city through immersion in nature, he argued for a park design that incorporates timelessness and responsiveness to primal human desires, beyond computations of carbon gains and losses.